There are often various ways of transliterating an Arabic
word or name, several of them equally correct, and others also reasonable.
Here is some unofficial and non-binding advice on how to transliterate Arabic. This is not a standardization: please do not put in requests for title edits or firmlinks just to conform to this advice.
This write-up concerns how to incorporate the odd word or name into English text. For more linguistic detail about the language and its sounds, see Arabic transliteration by Mercuryblues and my own Arabic pronunciation.
Standard and local Arabic
The language of the Quran
is called Classical Arabic
and has been transmitted unchanged for 1400 years for reciting the Quran and also for communication between educated Muslim
s from different countries. With the addition of new words for 'television', 'republic' and so on, it is called Modern Standard Arabic
(MSA). Radio stations often broadcast in Standard Arabic: the equivalent of a BBC
accent on the World Service
The spoken language of the people has changed like any other 1400-year-old language, and the 'dialects' of modern Arabic may be effectively different languages, especially in North Africa: Palestinian, Iraqi, Egyptian, Algerian, and the rest each have their own sounds, and pronounce Arabic differently. Children grow up speaking their own local Arabic. They have to learn Modern Standard Arabic in school.
Thus the MSA name Muhammad is pronounced Mohammed in many places, and this is often the reason why you get both forms. The Standard letter Q is apparently pronounced G in Libya, so Colonel Qaddhafi is sometimes written Gaddafi. Neither is more or less correct: but forms with K- or Kh- are wrong.
Established English forms
Where one form is common in English, that should be used, even though it's a less accurate transliteration: King Hassan
of Morocco, not Hasan; King Hussein
of Jordan and Saddam Hussein
, not Husayn. But for other Hasans and Husayns who are less familiar in English, it would be better to use these more accurate forms Hasan
We always write Riyadh, never the more accurate Riyad or al-Riyad or ar-Riyad. Pedantry is bad. Cairo not al-Qahirah, Mecca not al-Makkah, Casablanca not Dar al-Bayda, and so on.
In some cases multiple forms are in use side by side. In this case it's better to use the one closer to Standard Arabic. Seventy years ago Fowler thought it was pedantic to use Mohammed instead of the normal Mahomet, and held up his hands in horror at Muhammad. These days Muhammad is a familiar and preferable form. Likewise Quran rather than Koran. Perhaps someday we'll be comfortable using Makkah for Mecca, but for now that's still what Fowler called Pride of Knowledge.
Accurate printed transliterations of Arabic use accent
s: a dot under T D S Z and H to indicate the so-called emphatic
letters, and a macron
or a circumflex
over A I U to indicate a long vowel
. Well the circumflexes are easy to do in HTML, but the dotted letters aren't among the most accessible Unicode characters
There are also two Arabic signs hamza and ain which English-speakers have difficulty hearing and making, and indicate them in transcription by open and close quotes: 'Ahmad, `Abdullah. These are often left out.
If you want to be precise you can add the Arabic itself in Unicode. To keep the English neat and simple, I recommend leaving out all accents and quotes. That is why I standardized our nodes on the Quran to that spelling, not Qur'an. If you prefer the other, or accents, pipelink away: [Quran|Qur'ān] gives you a pleasing Qur'ān.
al-, as-, el-
The definite article
in Standard Arabic, attached to the following word (there is no hyphen
).But in English we never write it joined together, always hyphenated or separate: Anwar al Sadat or Anwar al-Sadat. In this case he's a well-known person who's also known as Anwar Sadat
. Therefore I recommend separated, because a search for 'Sadat' won't find 'al-Sadat'. When there's a choice of with or without 'al-', as here, for simplicity I'd recommend leaving it out. But some names always have it: al-Qaida
It assimilates to some consonants (T D S Z N R), so written alsadat is pronounced assadat. We sometimes see as-Sadat, but this is less common, and entirely predictable from the spelling al-Sadat, so it's unnecessary.
In modern dialects it's often el- (and es- etc.). Use this only if the name is always given with it, as with many Egyptian and Sudanese names.
E and O
Standard Arabic has only the three vowels A I U. Local forms often have five vowels A E I O U. Muhammad
for the Prophet is a name used throughout the Arabic world, but a modern person might be a Mohammed or Mohammad. The Saudi Osama bin Laden
is sometimes named in the Standard form Usama bin Ladin, but the more familiar spelling should be preferred.
However, I do not approve of using OO and EE to represent long U and I. Avoid if possible. But they are the established forms in the news agency Aljazeera and Sultan Qaboos of Oman.
-a and -ah
The feminine ending was -ah
in Classical Arabic (when said in isolation). In modern Arabic, even when using Standard pronunciation, the H is usually silent, so you see it as -a
. Examples are fatwa
or fatwah, Fatima
or Fatimah, and Sharia
or Shari'ah, intifada
or intifadah. In these cases I think there's an established English form with no H. In other, less familiar names, you might want to use the stricter spelling with H, or you might want to leave it out for consistency with established borrowings. Both are equally correct: I don't want to lay down an arbitrary rule. (See ta marbuta
/msg me for clarifications or advice. I know some of the nodes we have are not under the names I have recommended, and I don't care. They're fine where they are.